Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Seeing the gold in someone else

Christmas decor courtesy of Megan!
Jolly spirits, twinkling lights, the smell of peppermint mixed with pine, and hearing Mariah Carey belt out, “All I Want for Christmas,” for the 10,000th time. Yes, it’s once again that time of year when children eagerly await the arrival of the man who eats cookies and rewards the kids who say “please” and “thank you”.  Suddenly, being cheerful and lending an extra hand to your neighbor comes a little more naturally because, after all, it is “the season of giving.” Like most, Christmas is my absolute favorite time of year; just ask my poor seven roommates who so graciously put up with my nonstop festive spirit.  My love of Christmas has grown with me through the years; I’m currently 5 feet but I said extra “thank you’s” this year in hopes that at nineteen years old, I will finally be getting that long-awaited growth spurt. Although my outer appearance hasn’t changed much since I was a child, there is one major change that has taken place.  After experiencing nineteen Christmases, I no longer cringe when I hear the dreaded date December 26th.  The day when there are no longer presents to be seen underneath the tree.  All at once, the conversation takes a dramatic turn from who’s going to win the ugly Christmas sweater contest (I still think I should’ve won first place) to how to get the kids to behave without threats from Santa? It seems as though this day clears the atmosphere of any Christmas spirit that encourages us to be a little kinder than necessary, because after all, “the season of giving” is over. And just like that, Christmas is gone.

Enjoying an afternoon at Christkindl Market
Sitting in the Marquard soup kitchen, surround by our guests, I hear Frank Sinatra through the speaker telling his loved ones “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Accompanying Frank’s soft melody is an overly excited voice coming from the TV advertising a “must have” knife set for only 150.00 dollars plus shipping (I believe the sale is still going on in case you’re interested).  As I take in my surroundings I look into the faces of our guests and it hits me, many of them consider this their home, their only place of stability, a worn down building where they receive a hot meal and are greeted by familiar faces that, over time, they consider family. I also realize the knife set is not the ultimate gift.  I look towards the back of the room where I see Andrew*, bowing his head in thanksgiving before he bites into his chicken. Next to him sits Steve*, who has a faraway look on his face and is singing along in a different key with Mr. Sinatra’s smooth voice. As Steve makes his way to the chorus I can almost see him reliving his past Christmases. I wonder, what was the 50 year old Steve like when he was five years old?  What are his favorite Christmas memories?  What are some life lessons he could teach me?  And Andrew, what does he say to God when his head is bowed in such a pious and respectful way? I’m guessing that he’s not asking for a new knife set.  As all these thoughts are racing through my head I look down in shame, realizing that four months ago, before I came to Franciscan Outreach, if I would’ve walked past this building. There’s little chance I would have made eye contact with Andrew or Steve, much less take interest in their life. I can’t help but to think of how many opportunities I missed simply because my pride got in the way.

When three wise men came across a dirty stable, they were able to see past the dirt and foul smells to find a baby, whose importance overshadowed all doubt that this was just an ordinary stable. We also must take intentional time to cultivate the Christmas spirit by deliberately looking past the “dirt” in people to see the “gold” that is sometimes kept hidden. Instead of seeing it as a “good deed” we need to start recognizing the true gift we are receiving when we are able to see the “gold” in someone else.  I’m sure the wise men didn’t think they were doing a favor when they went out of their way to find baby Jesus. They knew the great privilege they were receiving when they approached the stable.  Amid the carols, nativity set, and sparkling tinsel, I found the Christmas spirit right in front of me where it always had been, in the heart of a kind man with his head bowed and the twinkling eyes of a sentimental guest.

Why does it take a holiday to fully realize the importance of the people around us?  Why is it only in the 25 days of December that we are encouraged to live out “the season of giving”?  I no longer dread December 26th because slowly but surely, I’m learning that the spirit of Christmas doesn’t come from candy canes or fancy ornaments; therefore, it doesn’t have to leave with them.  So please, on December 26th wake up with a smile on your face, not because there are presents waiting to be ripped open but because you have been given the gift of another day of life to live out the Christmas spirit by saying hello to your neighbor or going out of your way to do something kind for others.  Giving should not be confined within a season; it should simply be a way of life.

By: Megan Hryniewicz
Hometown: Crystal Lake, IL

*Names have been changed to honor the anonymity of our guests

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Questions and Doubts

The decision to come to Chicago and work with Franciscan Outreach was not an easy one for me. While I have always known that I wanted to do a social service year abroad after High School, I never thought I would end up in the United States – the country I was probably the least interested in. Having lived here for three months now, I am slowly realizing that doing this program was probably the best choice I have ever made. Not only do I get the chance to build incredibly strong relationships with the other community members, but it also means a lot of personal growth as I question and understand my own bias and prejudice much better.

When I told my friends and family that I was going to live in Chicago to work with people experiencing homelessness, the reactions were diverse. My parents, first of all, seemed to be relieved that I chose a  comparably safe location where I would at least understand the language.

However, some other family members had a hard time understanding why I chose to live for a year in a country whose deep social disruptions are so hard for us to comprehend. A country that seems so rich but at the same time struggles with so much poverty. "Why don't you go to a place where people need help more urgently?", is a question I also asked myself several times. In addition, I felt like helping out in a soup kitchen is not exactly treating the problem of poverty and food insecurity at its roots.

Despite all these doubts I chose to fly to Chicago to cook food, wash laundry and offer showers to the guests that come to the Marquard Center every day searching for our assistance. And as I have already stated: I couldn't have made a better choice.

Ever since I have been here, I have not for a second felt like our work is not needed or I should rather spend my time fighting for social justice as I had slightly expected. The people we work with are real and so are their problems. Every individual deserves the attention and services we offer and I begin to understand that talking about social justice is rather senseless if we forget the people we named ourselves to represent. I am incredibly grateful for the connections we are able to make with our guests and all the things they teach me day by day. Learning about their perspectives on the world is often challenging but always rewarding and possibly the best part of our work. Even though we might not be able to give everybody all the attention and resources they need and even though we might not get along as well as we would like to with all of our guests, it feels good to know that we are doing the best we can.

Still, we don't forget about the bigger issue. Talking about social justice in the United States at our curriculum nights and reflections is a big part of the program. We stay aware of the fact that no soup kitchen or shelter could possibly make up for the fact that nobody deserves to be homeless. As much as we try to create a home and a safe place for our guests, we always keep in mind that every human being deserves so much better than this.

"Know that no one is silent
though many are not heard
work to change this,"

is what a poster in the hallway of our community space says. If anything, I have learned in the last three months that every story, every perspective and every individual is worth listening to.

By: Selma Buengener
Hometown: Norderstedt, Germany

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Life is a Video Game

Life is a video game. You need to sleep and eat to get more energy. Sports and work help you to get a level up. Most of the time in life, just like in video games, you can count on the basic programming to stay the same.

2017-18 Fran Outreach Volunteers

I have worked in the shelter for almost 2 months. I thought life is something special and getting sleep/food and being allowed to go to work is a privilege. But then a friend of mine told me: “Life is just a video game. If you fail you can restart and live the American dream by creating the best of your life.” I love the idea of thinking life is a video game; when you make a wrong decision and you want to restart you could do it. But what about the point in the game when you don't have an ‘extra life’ anymore?

What happens when you do not have an ‘extra life’ left but you want to restart?
Is there a limited chance to restart your way of living?
What if you played in a team and another teammate made a wrong decision and because of that you lost your last extra life?
Is the rest of your life now hopeless?
Are you not able to change your way of living anymore?

I occupy my mind with these critical questions. It felt like our guests are on the point where they just have one extra life left or maybe no extra life anymore. Some of them seem very hopeless and want to quit the game. But they are really thankful that we give them the opportunity to refill their power bank. We offer them a bed to sleep and we give them food without conditions. But they are not able to get a level up and get out of their situation and get an extra life just with sleep and food. Therefore there is a ‘cheat’ installed in every game. We call it “Case Manager”. They help with getting a job and a place to raise energy. They are the ‘power ups’. If one can see, there is always a chance to go on. Even if you are hopeless and do not see a change and you want to quit, you should look for ‘power ups’ and use them! They are always useful! Before every final enemy of each level somebody offers you help. It is your choice to accept or turn down any help but there is nothing bad about accepting help. It is just using every ‘power up’ you got. And to be honest, every good video gamer is using every ‘power up’ he can get!

But keep in mind. You can stand on both sides. So don't take for granted the help you get and offer help if you are able to do so. To put it in a nutshell, life is about give-and-take, in contrast to video games!

By: Verena Boehm
Hometown: Dillingen/Saar, Germany

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

My Year Abroad with Franciscan Outreach

I´m Lorena. I'm 20 years old and a full-time volunteer in the soup kitchen. Ten months ago I had no idea what to expect from Chicago and what the work in the soup kitchen would be like. Coming from a small city called Schwaebisch Gmuend, (which is located in the southern part of Germany, next to Stuttgart) I was pretty pumped and curious how my life would look like for the next 12 months.

I´m not going to tell any fairy tales in this post; instead I want to talk about what significant things I experienced, how some experiences changed me and my values, and how I made progress for myself and for my future.

Lorena, in front of the Chicago skyline

I remember being a “newbie”, working in the soup kitchen, getting into the daily kitchen routine and learning a lot of things in a short period of time. Yes, it was a challenge and not always easy, but I managed. From my perspective, a great thing about the work in the soup kitchen is that our tasks change every day so we´re not always doing the same job. I remember one day around mid-September like it was yesterday, I was getting more and more into the kitchen life, trying not to burn any casseroles, learning how to coordinate our part-time volunteers during dinner, running 20 times up and down to the laundry room to get socks and hygiene kits for the guests. I was doing intake that night. Everything happened as usual but then one guest came in who was barred from the soup kitchen and Brother Doug (our Supervisor) explained to him that he couldn’t come in until mid-October. I could see how he tried to hold back his tears. He left and I felt enormously sorry for him, realizing how important food actually is, for any human being. A few days later I became aware of the fact that it´s not just food that we provide at the soup kitchen, it´s the place itself. A place where everyone is welcome, where people have a daily routine and community, and some of the guests may not have outside of the soup kitchen.

I have to say I´m glad for this experience. It has made me think about how expensive food is (here in America) and if you don´t make any money or even if you have a job it’s possible that you can only afford junk/fast food. It is sad but it´s the reality and I had to face it at some point.

The Kitchen Crew sporting their FOV squad sweatshirts
The time flew by so fast and it was already Christmas. Working on Christmas Eve was one of my favorite experiences. A lot of families came in; sat together, enjoyed the food and I gave out some Christmas cards that night, wishing everyone a wonderful Christmas. I felt really happy to work on this special day. 

Reflecting on the progress I made, I have to say I gained a lot of self-confidence during the 10 months here. Especially at work, being the only female full-time volunteer in the soup kitchen this year and expressing my opinion/ideas was not always easy but it made me stronger. Also looking at the progress I made for my future here at Franciscan Outreach, “Simple Living” is a big part of it. For instance we had a Curriculum once for Community Night which was about how spirituality tells us to be simple. We talked about the “Golden mean” which describes the middle way through life – having not too much and not too little. Speaking about values because of my work here, I´m much more aware of how important good health, something to eat and a supportive family are.

The volunteers pose for a picture at Helpings of Hope

To put it all in a nutshell, Franciscan Outreach offers a great opportunity to live in a community with people from different countries and having the experience of your lifetime focusing on Service, Community, Simple Living and Spirituality. I made the decision to participate in this program and it was the best decision in my entire life so far. If you´re thinking about doing a year of service and you´re not afraid of challenges nor afraid of change, want to be part of something big and you´re a person who cares about other people – then this is the right program for you. Take a chance!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Superhero Stories

John poses in front of the Chicago skyline 
John and his mentor, Aaron 
Hey, I’m John! I’m close to my twentieth birthday, I come from a quiet town in the west of Germany near the Rhein called Wiesbaden, and I am a sucker for superhero stories. I still haven’t figured out how exactly they hooked me in the first place. Maybe it was because I spent too much time in front of the TV when I was too “sick” to go to school; maybe because all those superheroes looked pretty awesome in their spandex suits; or maybe every eight year old boy wants to save the world. But as I grew up I realized something and it was not “John you’re a grown man, you should stop thinking about Superheroes”. I realized that most of these stories are one dimensional. You always know who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, and which one you should like while hating the other. I started asking myself how these stories would look if they wouldn´t be so one dimensional and I found my answer here at Franciscan Outreach.

John and his community celebrate German Unity Day
As a full time volunteer I work overnights at Franciscan House, Franciscan Outreach’s emergency shelter. So I spend most of my nights at Harrison and California, taking care of the North and South dorms which offer shelter to around 230 men. In the summertime, the lights go out at 9:30 PM, then I go on break, which includes a quick trip back to the Marquard Center and at 10:30 PM my night shift starts officially. For most of the night, it is just me and my desk- which is stationed in the North Dorm with a nice view across the beds and the individuals who sleep in them. From time to time I take a tour through the facility to check that everything is safe and sound. Sometimes, I take a detour to our office to grab some food and fresh coffee. Don't get me wrong, not all nights work that way; usually, it is quite the opposite. But the nights full of events or emergencies are not the nights I want to talk about. The quiet and uneventful nights give me the opportunity to listen to real superhero stories. On those nights, I have the chance to listen to the guests who can't find sleep. Some come straight to me because they know there is a naive, young guy at the desk that needs a lecture about life. Others need to ask a question so they know there is someone at the desk that cares. Either way, they give me the opportunity to listen to their story. They tell stories about loss, setbacks, and tragic events but also about happiness, trust, and ambitions. Now we come to the plot of this whole blog post. These stories are the real superhero stories for me. Why? First of all, they are not one dimensional. They refer to real human beings with real intention and more important real issues. That is what makes these stories so intense because while you are listening you realize piece by piece that the individual in front of you is talking about relatable human problems. As we all know, real issues are not easy to categorize as good or bad. After all, you are not so different; even though it seemed impossible some moments ago. On the other hand, relating to these stories can be hard since our guests experience things you and I can’t even imagine. Most people have never had to deal with mental and/or physical abuse or being marginalized every day, just to name a few. Despite this, our guests always greet me with a “Good Evening”, they say their bed number and give me a smile (some more enthusiastic than others). If all of that doesn’t make them superheroes then I don´t know what would. These are people who have to deal with some tough stuff and, even though they may struggle under all of that weight sometimes, they still stand.

The Shelter Crew poses for a picture at Opening Retreat
I think it is important to hear these superhero stories because unlike the other heroes we see today in the media, their story gets critically neglected by society. So next time a nice gentleman with slightly ripped clothes on the street has something to tell, maybe stop and listen. You might be fortunate enough to hear a superhero story. Or approach me or any of my fellow volunteers; we are always down to share some heroic stories from and with our guests. But be sure that we won´t share any names because every good superhero needs their mask.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Love and Belonging

2014-2015 FOV - Cara Ugolino

BrenĂ© Brown, a researcher on shame and empathy wrote, “Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re hardwired for connection—it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.” This quote comes to mind when I reflect on my year with Franciscan Outreach Volunteers (FOV). I never imagined this experience would be so life altering; however, my volunteer year has completely shaped my values regarding community and service.
Cara and her community set out on their journey together at Opening Retreat

Franciscan Outreach challenged me to recognize that individuals experiencing homelessness are people with incredibly rich and beautiful stories, identities, and strengths to share with this world. It made me realize that our society dehumanizes and does an incredible disservice to individuals that are living on our societal margins. We do not value the individual that is pregnant and can’t afford food, the person that has lost their job unexpectedly after having a heart attack, the individual that is experiencing mental health issues and no longer has family support, or the person who is dealing with a substance abuse issue. I quickly realized that we ignore those that differ from us, unless we or a loved one has a shared identity or similar experience to the individuals that are struggling. However, if my service year has taught me anything, it’s that we all are in this world to love and be loved. It’s as simple as that.
Karen and Cara carving up some birds in the Marquard Kitchen

Living in community with eleven other people has also made a large impact on my life. I am almost certain that I will never have an experience as fulfilling as this. I have never laughed harder in my life or been as frustrated as I was when living in community. I learned how to live with and love eleven other personalities that differed from my own. I constantly find myself missing Manu’s goofiness, Brett’s laugh, Theresa’s warmth, Cady’s silliness, drinking hot cocoa and coffee with Elias, dinner dates with Kristen, Nick sharing information about the world, Valentin’s Snapchats and waking me up in the morning, Sebi’s smile, Karen’s sassiness, and Maddy’s rap skills.
2014 -2015 Community in front of the Chicago skyline

Following my year of service I decided that I wanted to pursue a master’s in Social Work. I went on to start my graduate degree at the University of Chicago in Social Service Administration. During my first year of school, I worked with pre-k through third grade students in the CPS system who were experiencing behavioral and emotional problems. I ran a grief group for first grade children who had lost their parents to gun violence. This experience reiterated for me that children are either set up for failure or success, simply based on the neighborhoods that they reside in, and how much wealth is put into their school systems.
Cara, Karen, Manu, Brett, and Valentin in front of Cloud Gate (a.k.a. The Bean)

I am currently in my last year of grad school and I am working with youth who don’t have stable housing. Between this experience and my time with FOV, I have realized that my goal for after graduation is to work with LGBTQIA folks who are experiencing homelessness. Through my research in school, I found that according to the Society for Public Health Education (2012) five to seven percent of American youth identify as LGBTQ; which means that there are about 2.7 million LGBTQ youth in the United States. However, they found that a lack of family and social support often contributes to the LGBTQ youth homelessness rate of 40 percent. LGBTQ-identified youth are more likely to experience physical violence, drug use and abuse, earlier and unprotected sexual activity, self-inflicted violence, depression, bullying, teasing, harassment, physical assault, and suicide-related behaviors compared to their cisgender and heterosexual peers. It has quickly become evident to me that these individuals are vastly underserved. There is an incredible amount of work that needs to be done within organizations throughout Chicago in working toward becoming more culturally competent in terms of diverse gender and sexual identities.
Kristen, Brett, and Cara enjoy Frostys in the cold

This brings me back to that quote from BrenĂ© Brown; it’s worth repeating. “Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re hardwired for connection—it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.” Although our society does not always value individuals who are experiencing homelessness, I look forward to fostering a space of love, belonging, and connection in my future social work practice. I will forever be grateful to FOV for providing me with eleven other volunteers that value the same things for all people. I can only hope that I find individuals with similar values throughout the rest of my life.  
Manu, Elias, Theresa, Cara, Karen, Nick, and Maddy reconnected this summer